5 Questions with: Dr. Zakiya Leggett, Professor of Forestry at N.C. State

On June 28, Dr. Zakiya Leggett will be the keynote speaker in N.C. State’s Women in the Environment Conference, and event designed to get high schoolers interested in hot-topic environmental issues and the ways they can work to affect change. Leggett is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources and the Campus Director for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program—but her path to this program is unexpected. Read on to learn more.

How did you get into environmental science?
If you look up Mother Earth, you’ll see a picture of my mama. I was raised a vegan in Tennessee, the barbecue capital of the world, and we did not eat anything, or wear anything, if it did not come from the earth or go back to the earth. She was bringing glass to work before everyone did it, I couldn’t wear those cute nylon ruffled socks, I couldn’t wear leather. We did a lot of camping—which is not traditional for an African-American family—and a lot of gardening and farming. So when it came to look for majors, I was interested in environmental science or chemistry, and Tuskegee University offered me a full ride and a job afterwards if I studied forestry, so my dad was like, take the one that’s fully paid for! I didn’t want to be out hugging trees all day, but I went for it.  

I got my PhD at N.C. State, and now I’ve been teaching going on three years, I was adjunct faculty for a while when I worked in the industry.

Why are you specifically targeting women with this event?
There are certain careers where there aren’t a lot of women—I’m in forestry and there are certainly a limited number of women in this field! When I came to N.C. State, I think there were two females in the department, we may be up to six or seven now. From my perspective, it’s important to come to a conference and see women represented, it’s key to see people in careers to think they may want to do them.

Are there any misperceptions about environmental science?
People certainly have a limited view in terms of what might be a job in the field of environmental science But even within the specialities there are so many options. With a degree in forestry you could be the traditional forester, doing tree assessment, where you’re looking at the health of a tree or the volume of a plantation, but others in forestry to mapping to figure out how to buy land or what tools you’d need—I contrast those two because one is a profession where you’d be outside just about every day, the other inside. There’s also forest economics, examining the checks and balances associated with you want to plant a certain type of tree in, say, a subdivision. There are so many different facets that people could work on, even if their knee-jerk reaction is, I don’t want to be outside!

It seems like the major could go in pretty different directions—does it attract the same kinds of students?
That’s a dilemma we face in our department. I would say that 60 percent of the undergrads in forestry are interested in the production side—planning the plantation, cutting the trees down, making pulp from those trees—then the other 40 percent are looking at conservation practices and policy. So one thing we talk about is developing a program that’s balanced and transparent. We can lean more toward the production side, but we need to educate the public that the production side is needed—I always say that as long as we’re using toilet paper, we’re going to need production.

What will attendees learn at the conference?
The goal is to both expose students to opportunities—there’s a hands-one portion of the event—but of course a large piece is to get students to go to N.C. State. One thing I can say is that our recruiters are hugely objective and responsive to the students. They are supportive in helping students with applications in general, even to other universities. I’m doing the keynote and then there is a full schedule, I’m hoping to go to some of the other lectures as well. There’s an environmental education session and I want to go to that, that’s another passion of mine.

The Women in the Environment Conference will be held on Friday, June 28 from 8:30 a.m.—3:30 p.m. at the James B Hunt Jr. Library. For registration and more information, visit ncsu.edu.